Fair Trade is Fair

For some reason fair trade has always been the ugly step-sister of the glamorous organic movement. My Man and I have noticed that people are a lot more likely to care about the environment than human rights. It seems so backwards, but I think it’s precisely because we are humans ourselves. We can maintain an emotional distance from clear-cuts and pesticides, but millions of people, even children, across the globe working in slave-like conditions in order to provide us our high standard of living? It’s uncomfortable.

The purpose of fair trade is pretty self-explanatory: a fair wage to farmers and honest economic support of their communities. We all know dark things go on behind closed doors, but it’s important to note that the luxury items in our world– coffee, tea and chocolate in particular– come from countries with especially heavy doors.

Perhaps the most egregious human rights violations occur in the chocolate industry. It’s not even just like slavery, there are ongoing cases of actual child slavery, particularly along the Ivory Coast. Perhaps again because this hits so close to our hearts, it has really not made news much at all. Many otherwise informed people have never heard of chocolate slavery. While coffee is the commonly thought of fair-trade item, chocolate is my number one.

Prepared chocolate products are practically impossible to find fair trade, apart from those $4 chocolate bars that no one can afford, so I generally make my own chocolatey goodness when the craving hits. You can usually make your own treats with ethical ingredients for about the same price as buying the decent quality pre-prepared version. (The caveat is the looming pile of dishes left at the end of a day of DIY food for a family of four. Yikes.)

If you can’t find fair trade cocoa powder or chocolate chips locally, here’s a decent price on bulk mail-order from Sweet Earth Chocolates. Their cocoa powder is $11/lb and the dark choc chips are $9/lb. Of course, the shipping is what gets you. See if you can’t go in on a big order with friends.

As part of my food month, I recently looked into buying fair trade coffee direct from the farmer online. My Man and I traveled in Central America several years ago and I was remembering a man in Guatemala who was trying to set up a website for selling the local farmers’ coffee. I guess I had some hopes I would find him. Of course, I didn’t. But I did find Coffee CSA, a 100% farmer owned cooperative which sends you 2 or 5 lbs monthly in a subscription. You can choose your farmer (literally, they have photographs and geographical locations); sign up for a “coffee tour” and get a different single origin coffee each month; or choose a roast type. I signed up for a monthly delivery of 2 lbs of French roast. Including shipping it works out to almost $16/lb. Ouch. I had been paying $13/lb for Whole Foods’ fair trade, which already seemed steep. But coffee shouldn’t be so cheap in the first place– I have to keep reminding myself of that. Even at $32/month, plus about as much more for the organic half-and-half, that’s still only $2/day! That’s 50 cents per cup! And, pivotally important for coffee snobs like me, their roaster does a good job– it’s a delicious cup.

If you are a tea drinker, Arbor Tea is a nice family run company I’ve ordered from before with decent prices for loose leaf. For general sourcing, Fair Trade USA just launched a Finder App on Faceb**k, to help locate local stores which carry fair trade products.

Lastly, I have a very wordy post brewing on how and even whether to afford such noble pursuits as fair trade, organic, sustainable, ethically produced, etc, etc. [post script: here’s the link to that post, Priorities, Compromise and the Privilege of Doing Good] Meanwhile– understand that I ain’t no saint, and have bought many, many a carton of industry chocolate ice cream, as well as gleeful coffees out on the town. It’s a minefield these days. We do what we can.

Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is, Part 1

So now that we’ve determined that shopping at Whole Foods and washing your dog with organic rosemary ginger shampoo doesn’t mean you can check “Being Green” off your list, where does that leave us?

Oh yeah, at the time-consuming conclusion that we need to actually think about what we buy.

Reduce our needs and wants. Make what we can at home. And for the rest, do our best to educate ourselves about the industries we’re supporting with those hard-earned greenbacks.

I think I’d better start by saying a few things about myself. I have been, in my past, super hard-core about not buying bad stuff. Also spent a fair number of days in my youth slain by overwhelming compassion/depression for the world in it’s all its FUBAR (Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition) glory. For better or for worse, the intensity has subsided. I do my best, but I’m a long shot from any ideal.

This post is not intended to inspire guilt, to make you feel lesser, or allow you to feel better, than anyone else. We’re all working with what we’ve got.

Fair-Trade? Who Cares

I think it’s interesting that the organic movement has taken off like a rocket, and even animal rights issues are pretty popular. But human rights? No one wants to talk about it. I mean really, it’s weird. Save the rainforest, but screw you buddy.

How many times have you heard about global warming, just in the last two weeks? And how many times have you heard about chocolate and child slavery? Ever? The US in particular does not want to talk about slavery except as something that we, oh great nation that we are, abolished long ago. Caring people in other countries seem to open their mouths occasionally, but not us.

If you’ve never heard the words chocolate and slavery go together, I hate to be the harbinger of bad news, but, here it is. The cacao industry is tops on the list of human rights violations, and no, “slavery” is not an misnomer. There’s a good introduction to the issue at Chocolate Work, and a more detailed and thorough overview at Stop Chocolate Slavery.

So, topping my personal list of Responsible Consumer Priorities is fair-trade chocolate. I have no doubt that fair trade isn’t as fair as one might hope, but it’s a long shot better than slavery!

For more information on the fair-trade principles, check out Global Exchange.

Also important to buy fair trade are coffee, sugar and tea. I’m not sure why it’s these addictive luxuries that inspire some of the most egregious human rights violations. Perhaps because they’re such big industries, worth so much money.

A note on fair-trade versus organic. My husband and I traveled in Nicaragua a few years ago (okay, several) and spent a little time in a fair-trade coffee growing area. It helped me to understand why I would often find one or the other, but not both certifications on the same coffee. The producers, at least in that region, were very small, family farms. The families were dirt poor, to be sure. Absolute poverty by American standards, but doing pretty good by Nicaraguan standards. They appeared to own their own land, which is huge. Anyway, being so small it’s easy to see how they cannot afford to do something like certify organic. And though they very well might use chemical fertilizers and pesticides, I can say that the farms I saw had very natural, diverse plantings (as opposed to giant mono-cropping) which would minimize the need for expensive chemicals.

Free Range, Cage Free and Organic Dairy

Animal products are next on my own list. This one has multiple persuasive arguments. For one, there is the animals themselves, subjected to the very worst slavery imaginable. I doubt I need to explain much about this to anyone reading this blog. But if anyone needs convincing a quick search on “factory farms” ought to do the trick. Many people become vegetarians, but continue to eat dairy. Although I can understand making priorities (obviously), to me dairying is every bit as cruel, and involves plenty of outright death as well.

If the animals’ rights are not enough to sway you, consider that consuming hormones and antibiotics on a daily basis is like signing yourself up for one giant science experiment. Maybe it will turn out to be no big deal….? Fats are big carriers and concentrators of chemicals, so to me this means that butter tops my dairy list.

I am not qualified to say much of anything on the commercially available humane meat subject. Until last August, I’d always lived in Alaska, and limited myself to wild meat and fish. When we moved here I came bearing two gigantic, fifty pound coolers full of salmon and moose. Not to mention 9 cases of home canned same. I was not about to be without my good proteins! Especially since I was about to give birth and knew as a nursing mama I’d want to eat lots of meat, and that my little growing daughter can hardly get enough fish.

But I am fairly sure that seeking out a local farm would be far, far superior to anything you could buy at the store, no matter the certification. This would doubtlessly take some research, but that’s the whole point.

I do have to interject a little tirade here. Whole Foods, full of lots of organic everything, and boasting a big, aesthetically pleasing meat counter that makes you want to lay all hesitations aside and trust that they’ve figured it out for you, has almost no organic meat, let alone free-range or grass-fed. The first time I went over to peruse their selection, I was shocked. I kept going back and forth, every item had a nice big sign telling you all about how natural it was, no hormones, no antibiotics, no additives, blah, blah, blah. And I have no doubt that most people who buy meat there assume it is organic and free range. Both my mom when she was visiting and, last night, my husband have said “Isn’t everything they sell organic?” No! Oh, that really pisses me off. Only about half of their products are organic, but I’m sure many of their customers allow themselves to be misled.

Anyway, the gist of that is, don’t trust big business! They’re going to try to pull the wool over your eyes every chance they get.

However! Dairy is one thing I have looked into, because I use a lot of half and half for my coffee, butter for my baked goods, and milk for my daughter. I had assumed, based on my big business distrust, that all those regular names at the store were about equal. But since Organic Valley was a bit more expensive than Horizon or the O Organics brands, I thought maybe I’d better look into it. I found this great rundown of dairy companies by organic watchdog Cornucopia. I was pleased to find that although the latter two brands did in fact get the very low ratings I was expecting, Organic Valley got a four (out of five). “Excellent.”

Yesterday when I looked up this list again (the first time was in Cordova) I was pretty interested to find that the Whole Foods brand ‘365’ also got a four. Hmmm, maybe they’re not as bad as I’d thought. Or they just have to worry more than say, Safeway, about their customer base looking into things.

Though I went for years without it, I’ve lately become more and more dependent on cheese in my life. In Cordova I ordered a lot of staples through a bulk foods company (more on that later) and would often order 10 pounds of cheese at a time, and freeze it in 1 lb blocks. That worked great, and the price was pretty good. Otherwise, for some reason, organic cheese at the store is super expensive, and I am ashamed to admit, it’s one of the things we’ve been buying non-organic since the move. I do have my MIL send a block of Tillamook whenever she sends a package. I’ve heard very good things about Tillamook, from people who’ve lived in the area, and been to the factory. It is farmer owned, for whatever that’s worth. Not organic, and probably not free-range (I’ve never seen free-range cheese, or dairy at all), but possibly an improvement on standard commercial factory farm dairy…? It doesn’t take much!

By the way, the “Organic” certification does include a minimum of animal care requirements. Nothing to write home about, I still choose free-range over organic if I have to choose, but it’s something.

Now, how’s about vegetables?

Coming Soon!